How to make the most of a conference

It’s conference season! Next week I’m heading to San Francisco for the annual Nonprofit Technology Conference, which boasts thousands of attendees and countless opportunities for networking, skill-building, and…sheer exhaustion. To prepare, I asked a bunch of nonprofit leaders how they make the most of big events like this. Here’s part 1: what to do before you leave.

Do you really want to do this?

Ami Dar, Founder and Executive Director, Idealist:
Think twice—or three times—before signing up. It’s tempting and easy to sign up for a conference that’s happening a few months from now, but pretend for a moment that the conference is happening tomorrow or next week. Would you still want to attend? If so, go for it!

Make a plan.


Does this make you want to run for cover? (Photo: Enterprise 2.0 Conference via Flickr)

Amy Sample Ward, Membership Director, NTEN:

Create a schedule for yourself ahead of time. Don’t budget every minute of every day, but do outline any sessions you know you want to see, and add in a block or two of time that’s free time so you reserve flexible time to meet up with new friends or explore the city.

Allison Jones, Fundraising and communications professional:
While I may blog and have an online presence, I am at my core an introvert. Large group settings make me uneasy so I always feel incredibly nervous before a conference…But I build a ton of relationships online, and conferences offer an opportunity to strengthen those relationships face-to-face. [Arranging ahead of time to] connect in a small group or one-on-one feels less random and less “networky”; these interactions invigorate me and allow me to connect with people in a more meaningful way. Plus, by planning time to meet others, it makes it harder for me to run into a corner and hide!

Trish Tchume, National Director, Young Nonprofit Professionals Network:
If the conference posts a participant list beforehand, go through the list and make note of who you want to catch up with or meet. Once you decide on those folks, PICK AN ACTUAL DATE, TIME, AND PLACE TO MEET. The best way to not actually meet up with someone at a conference is to just plan to “grab each other” when you’re there.

Creature comforts, AKA “Your body and soul”

This one’s mine:
On my packing list for this trip are comfortable shoes, workout clothes, healthy snacks to help me avoid a conference pastry overdose or overpriced airplane snack pack, and a travel mug or water bottle.

One thing I didn’t do that required advance planning: Sign up to volunteer. If your conference includes optional service opportunities like the NTC does, why not take them up on it?

Think (way) ahead.

Farra Trompeter, Vice President, Big Duck:
Block out time on your calendar now for AFTER the conference to process all that you learned and actually implement some of the bright ideas you’re certain to pick up in the sessions and in your conversations.

I’ll be back soon with Part 2: What to do while you’re there. In the meantime, have you tried these strategies? Do you have other “know before you go” tips for conference-goers?

Ed. note: Read Part 2, which covers ways to survive and thrive at big events like this!

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Comments (9)

  1. Anna Callahan writes:
    March 27, 2012 at 2:33 pm

    After attending SXSW, I wrote an article on how to meet the right people at a crowded conference.

    The cliff notes:
    * Know why you’re going and who you want to meet.
    * Ask questions in panels — it allows you to introduce yourself and what you do.
    * Don’t just give out business cards — make sure to get them. You want to be in control of whom you contact later.
    * Triage all your cards at the end of each day to remember the most about people you met briefly.

    For more detail read the full article:

  2. Idealist writes:
    March 27, 2012 at 3:42 pm

    Nice! Thanks so much for sharing, Anna.

  3. Jereme Bivins writes:
    March 27, 2012 at 4:16 pm

    Mine’s not original, but it is a biggie: power. Running around the hotel and conference rooms all day does a number on your mobile devices, and you rarely find yourself seated next to a power outlet during the sessions. So I try to be very conscious about which devices I have on/running (vs. which I’m actually using), I optimize my devices’ power settings, and I always keep a spare charger in my bag.

    Also, if you’re a super-networker, power makes friends — and not in the Machiavellian way. People with power strips, back-up batteries, iPhone/iPad chargers, etc. are always great folks to have around; so if your primary goal at a conference is a ton of ‘Friend’ requests, nothing says ‘Like’ me quite like a spare laptop charger…

  4. Elizabeth Ellis writes:
    March 27, 2012 at 4:17 pm

    If you’ve been in the field or feel you have experience/expertise in the topic area and skills set the conference is focusing on, consider leading a workshop or break-out session. If you have knowledge and skills to share….. do it! Every field needs new voices and information to be shared. Often presenters are reimbursed for their time with a gratis conference registration. It’s a great way to build your training skills, network and attend a conference on a limited budget. Also, when you exchange business cards, include a note on the back of the card you receive to remind yourself what was shared and how to follow through once you get home. A “tickler” note if you will….. Once you go through your newly collected business cards, it can sometimes be hard to remember the “highlight” or spark of the conversation due to potential network overload and emails to be checked once you return.

  5. Lisa Bracken writes:
    March 28, 2012 at 6:34 am

    I love these suggestions and look forward to Part Two!

    I’ve been to and spoken at a number of conferences and similar gatherings over the years; and, as a newbie was easily overwhelmed by the sheer volume of attendees and scheduling. (But, conferences… what a very cool concept and exercise in distilled potential!)

    I always loved meeting new folks and sharing ideas and experiences, but really disliked not being able to match the face and conversation with the name at the end of the day (or worse… way later).

    One of the easiest, fastest and most productive things I learned to do (and quickly) was to attach a small sticky note on the back of exchanged business cards. I kept a pencil handy (no pens – no inadvertent leaks!) and jotted our common interest, projected purpose for later contact, or other tidbits of info to jog my mind later. I then filed collected cards in a clear sheet protector (designed to hold biz cards) and made a quick reference folder for later review.

    I’ve used this system to manage media contacts as well, and it works as reliably every single time.

    It is ‘old school’, but if one took the time, the same info could be digitally catalogued in a similar way.

    Blessed are the tiny sticky notes!

  6. Ewen Le Borgne writes:
    March 28, 2012 at 2:25 pm

    Hi there,

    Nice post, good practical tips and indeed I look forward to part 2.

    I have attended a number of conferences and events – though mostly as a facilitator than as a participant. It’s given me some other kind of food for thought but anyways, here are some practical tips of mine:
    – Bring a universal converter to avoid power problems in another country;
    – Bring an extension cable with multiple sockets: sometimes you need that extra cable length and it can then help others in the process;
    – Bring a camera or a device that has a camera so you can take pictures for blog posts and more;
    – Select a few sessions that you are anyway interested in and tickle your curiosity. Conferences are great chances to to make lucky serendipitous encounters – if you stick to your comfort zone you don’t explore the edges of your network of interest and miss out on potentially the next life-changing bend in your life ;)

    And here are a couple of blog posts about what I think we can generally expect from conferences:



  7. […] written before on what to do before and during a conference to meet people and expand your network. But what do you after a conference […]

  8. […] that happens in between sessions. Check out our series of how to make the most of conferences before, during, and […]

  9. […] Attend a conference: Although conferences might be full of people, it’s not always easy to introduce yourself: You get busy with the various speakers or just stick with your team. So, if you can, figure out who will be at the conference ahead of time and  try schedule a time to meet. […]

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